As Dustin Penner goes, so go the Oilers.
A year ago, that statement would have had Oilers fans searching for a noose.
Now, it represents a possible escape from the depressing, never-ending litany of defeat.
The evidence suggests that if they can get Penner going, the Oilers will be halfway respectable down the stretch.
• In his first 32 games, the big winger had a whopping 36 points and was plus 13. The Oilers were 15-13-4 and still very much in the playoff chase.
• In his last 19 games, Penner has seven points and is minus eight. The Oilers are 1-16-2 in that span.
So it’s probably no coincidence that Penner’s recent slide into the abyss coincides with Edmonton’s.
“I have to see how I can get back to the way I was playing before,” said the 27-year-old. “It would be nice to still be scoring at that pace.”
Penner’s season has reached a fork in the road. He either returns to the form that made him Edmonton’s MVP or he returns to the form that drove fans, coaches and management crazy.
It’s not like there’s a playoff chase to inspire him. There is no prize at the finish line, no playoffs, no new contract. This has to come from within.
“This is the time of year when players take their game up a notch, if you’re a good player or a good team,” said head coach Pat Quinn. “Because of where we are, the emotion that’s going on here, it’s all bad stuff. That’s when the players have to be more prepared to work in the mind rather than in the body.”
It’s a harder road for him this year. Last season you could leave Penner alone and he wouldn’t hurt you. This year he’s become the focus of every opposition game plan; shut him down and you’ll usually shut down the Oilers. So he’s facing the other side’s top defence pairing night in and night out, getting extra attention from everyone.
“There’s really no excuses, you just have to somehow battle through the challenge,” said Penner. “I want to do this for myself, I’m not happy with the last 10 games. It’s a challenge to me and I want to respond.”
Fatigue is also playing a part in his slow down, and not just physically. Losing can suck the life out of a person and he’s no exception.
“At this point Dustin does look like he’s a little tired or ponderous,” said Quinn. “We played him a lot early on, a lot more than he’s ever played before for anybody. Maybe we drained the tank a little bit. We’re hoping we can get that built back up. He’s got lots to offer our team.
“He’s an emotional guy and he wants to be a good player for this team. It’s our job to help him do that.”